Wednesday, May 11, 2011

gEtTiNg iN tUnE

[Cross-posted at the ThrillCall blog.]

Merrill Garbus, aka tUnE-yArDs, is one of those artists who creates because she can't not. As she told the Guardian, "Money was just never there, so I got used to being and creating without it." She spent years on the road, occasionally dumpster-diving to survive, scattering off-kilter creations (like a ukelele-based opera about Jonathan Swift) to little discernable response. But she brought her theater backgound and her amplified uke to Montreal, where her unique sensibility fit in with her friend Patrick Gregoire's electro-folkie band Sister Suvi. From there, songs poured out of her into a voice recorder in her bedroom. Tweaked with editing software, these became BiRd-BrAiNs (2009), her first album.

Before long, Garbus had a contract with venerable label 4AD, and fans like RZA and Yoko. Relentless touring honed her game to a fine point, and soon she had a new set of songs ready. But when she tried to emulate the lo-fi recording methods of her debut, she hated the results. "The songs just wouldn't wake up, so I asked my friend Eli to help. As someone who likes to do everything themselves, I hate admitting that."

It's a good thing she did, because engineer Eli Crew brought sonic clarity to her music without sacrificing the drama and intimacy of her songs – to the contrary, her sense of dynamics has opened into new vistas. Garbus also hired other collaborators: a slinky bassist and some demented horns, to layer in with her drum loops and ukelele. She took to the studio like a natural, and the resulting w h o k i l l was released April 19th.

The first single, "bizness," was an astonishing, idiosyncratic earworm; a patchwork of afropop, neo-folk, R&B, hip-hop and free jazz that crescendoes and hushes, jolts and lulls, and grabs you with the chanted hook: "don'ttakemylifeaway, don'ttakemylifeaway." It burbles from one end of my spinal column to the other so ingratiatingly that on first listen, it seemed like nothing on w h o k i l l was quite its equal. By the third listen, the others had settled in like a dog on a sofa. "Gangsta," "Killa," and Doorstep," in particular, join their predecessor as some of the finest tracks released this year.

Garbus inhales the world around her and respires it back as art, and some of the newer material mingles with the atmosphere of her new hometown of Oakland. She's concerned with power imbalances, on both individual and institutional levels. Many of the songs evince a strong ethos of social justice, but she doesn't shy from the dark side, either of her culture or of her own psyche. When she sings "you bomb me with lies, humiliations everyday/You bomb me so many times I never find my way," it's from one lover to another - but it could as easily be a nation speaking out. "There is a freedom in violence that I don't understand," she sings. "Cut away the parts that represent the things that scar you." But also "accept the death around our heads and be bitter no more."

As Cobain did in "Teen Spirit," she finds the rhythm in words that don't quite rhyme: bizness, victim, distance, addicted. But what really sells w h o k i l l is Garbus' utterly charming pallette of vocal stylings. Her voice is nasal, throaty, sweet, rapping, muttering, raspy, yowling, chanting, harmonic. In "Doorstep," the album's most arresting moment, she croons with angelic purity in the voice of a mother whose child has been killed by the police (inspired by last year's BART shooting in the Bay Area).

On her Facebook page she namechecks Odetta and Björk as influences, and has also mentioned the inspiration of Nina Simone, whose vocal timbre resembles hers (at times). But she also cites the sublime Rokia Traoré, and the African influence is undeniable - not least because Garbus studied in Kenya. She also mentions some other recent collaborators: she's played with avant-jazz trio Beep! and shares a track on Thao and Mirah's excellent new album, which she also produced. With such an exciting body of work behind her after only a few short years, I can hardly wait to see who she'll work with next.

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